Despite heavy Hollywood hype, independent films automatically capture my attention. With emphasis on plot, scripting, and character development, these global productions are stimulating and entertaining attractions to cinephiles and discriminating viewers. With some exceptions, Hollywood pix can be likened as desserts at gourmet quality indie movie banquets. Being considered out of the mainstream, these independents receive only scraps of promotion from tinsel town studio marketing machines favoring lavish hometown projects with heavy handed advertising.
Such is the case with “Omar,” which is receiving admiration from critics, but light play on Canadian screens. It’s worthy of your attention. The film is from Palestinian writer, director, producer Hany Abu-Assad who’s 2006 film “Paradise Now” won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and also received a Academy Award nomination in the same category. Its plot followed two Palestinian men preparing for a suicide attack in Tel Aviv.
In “Omar” (nominated for a 2013 Best Foreign Film Oscar), Abu-Assad follows a similar story of Jewish/Palestinian conflict. The title character Omar (Adam Bakri) is a baker and freedom fighter on the side. He’s accustomed to dodging surveillance bullets to cross the Israeli security wall to visit his secret love Nadia (Leem Lubany). But occupied Palestine knows neither simple love nor clear-cut war. The sensitive Omar continues his freedom fighter activities and realizes painful choices he faces about life and manhood.
A planned assault on an Israeli check point with his accomplices and childhood friends Amjad (Samer Bisharat), and Tarek (Eyad Hourani), who’s Nadia’s militant brother results in a soldier being killed. Israeli revenge is swift, and the next day a dramatic chase results in Omar’s detention, where he’s strung up and savagely beaten. He’s also befriended by a snitch who coaxes out a statement, “I will never confess,” which in military terms amounts to a confession. Agent Rami (Waleed F. Zuaiter) offers Omar a way out: Find Tarek, whom they suspect was the shooter, and he can go free. This would involve increasing tension and bitterness; reveal secret betrayals and attempts at self-protection causing the characters further harm. Omar’s feelings quickly become as torn apart as the Palestinian landscape. It’s evident that everything he does is for his love of Nadia.
Omar has no intention of ratting on his friend and possible future brother-in-law; instead, he joins Tarek’s plan to ambush soldiers in a cafe. Things go awry, and it becomes clear there’s a traitor among them — but who? Oddly, Omar gets a second reprieve from Rami and is allowed out if he leads them to Tarek, though this time Omar’s reason for accepting the commission is to find out for himself who the informer is, and to convince Nadia he’s not a stoolpigeon.
As he did with “Paradise Now,” Abu-Assad refuses to demonize characters for their poor choices. Only too aware of the crushing toll of the Occupation on Palestinians, he shows men (the film is male-centric) making tragic, often self-destructive decisions as a result of an inescapable environment of degradation and violence. With “Omar” he’s finessed the profile, depicting how the weaknesses that makes us human, especially love, can lead, in such a place, to acts of betrayal. It’s as if he’s taken thematic elements from Westerns and film noir, using the fight for dignity and an atmosphere of doubt to explain rather than excuse heinous actions. Viewers with a firm moral compass, who see killing as an act always to be condemned, won’t need “Omar” to tell them what’s right and wrong.
I perceive the actors have an easy confidence that underscores their humanity rather than their function as illustrations of a well-known conflict. Location work in the West Bank nicely captures the unnatural divisions forced on the populace by the wall, which separates Palestinians from each other as much as from Israel.
Director Hany Abu-Assad says “My focus as a filmmaker is to make interesting and powerful films and my work is an exploration of what makes great stories. For me, great films include characters with specific details whose motivations are both timeless and placeless. If my work happens to create something that affects peoples’ understanding of anything, this is a side issue.”
The director continues: “It has never been difficult to defend my artistic choices, as every artist in the world must do this; I am not exceptional in this way. At the same time, exploring the human side behind characters that act violently is also not exceptional and is what keeps most storytellers busy. More than anything else, I find that I am praised and/or criticized for giving a voice to the Palestinian case, but this is not artistic commentary or criticism. It is political commentary and criticism, which is wholly different. For me, real life often provides the most vibrant material for any storyteller and in the case of OMAR this is no exception.”
The four young characters, all played by newcomers in their first film, exude believability expressing deep emotions, and in combination with one another create a dynamic force. It adds reality to a relevant story that has artistic integrity.
OMAR is currently on screen in select markets. Watch for its home viewing release.